I begin with some words of Cole Porter.
‘Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.’
Porter was wrong of course. Birds and bees don’t fall in love.
But if birds and bees don’t fall in love then they certainly cooperate. We all know that when a bee discovers a rich source of nectar it performs a waggle dance back in the hive which tells the other bees which direction to head in and how far they will need to travel. Thus informed they make a bee line. Co-operation.
Animals are at their most fascinating and telegenic when they are competing, but much of the rest of the time they might well be quietly cooperating. Some scientists argue that even plants cooperate: think of the symbiotic relationships that we see in the lovely lichen on moor and mountain rocks.
According to the best contemporary thinking, therefore, cooperation is no big deal. It’s literally a very natural thing to do.
But if cooperation is such a natural thing for plants and animals – it does not always seem to be entirely straightforward for human beings.
To illustrate my point I want to introduce you to a word which exists – as far as I can tell – simply to underline the point that cooperation is often neither natural nor easy for us.
The word is ‘collaboration’. It was coined in the late nineteenth century. You may well wonder why because the word cooperation had been around since the early seventeenth century and done a perfectly good job describing the positive process of working together for a common end.
But why was the word cooperation not adequate to get us through the last part of the nineteenth century?
The answer comes in the unlikely form of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan worked together to produce dazzling comic operas which have delighted and charmed people ever since and which have had a probably underestimated impact on British culture – not least British comedy.
But the word cooperation was not quite meaty enough to describe what was going on when the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan were working together. They were ‘collaborating’.
Gilbert and Sullivan did not see the world in the same way. They disagreed about fit subjects of their joint efforts. Sullivan got irritated with Gilbert’s insistence on creating topsy-turvy situations where a silly premise is worked out to its absurd conclusion. He wanted realism and deep emotion – proper, serious theatre. There were personality differences too and of course one was a wordsmith and the other thought in musical terms. It ended in tears, alas. They fell out over a carpet. Though by the time Sullivan died Gilbert claimed that they were reconciled.
Collaboration is cooperation under pressure. Collaboration is cooperation between people who see things differently. Collaboration is cooperation between people who you might not normally expect to see together and who would not naturally seek each other out.
It is this form of cooperation, this collaboration, which I believe is most relevant to the purposes of this wonderful festival of Spirituality and Peace. And I want to metamorphose your slogan ‘cooperation for change’ to ‘collaboration for peace’.
Not that the word collaboration is without problems. It got into deep and unpleasant water in the twentieth century when World Wars created a context where the idea of collaboration was to make friends with and assist the enemy. Collaborators were not peace makers but traitors. And today when the word collaboration is used it might just be that there is a suggested hint of disloyalty in the air.
Peacemakers, people who spend their time and their energy making the world a more peaceable, just and compassionate place have not choice, in my view to adopt the mantle of collaboration. And the risks of being misunderstood that go with it.
When he was attempting reconciliation work in the Middle East someone complained to Canon Andrew White, now the vicar of Baghdad,that he was spending his time talking to very bad people. ‘I know’ he said, ‘what’s the point of talking to the good people’.
Rowan Williams hinted at something similar when he remarked recently that the problem with interfaith work is that the people who really need to get involved are the ones who never show up. This is the reason that inter-fait can be parodied as ‘nicey-nicey’; whether it is religion without edge for the chattering classes or a feel-good session for liberals, lefties and sandal wearing classes doers of good.
I really like this festival with its inclusive atmosphere, its location on Princess Street and its rich mix of contributions which are by turns serious and fun, prosaic and poetic, which include things to make you laugh and things to make you cry, events to make you think and things to stop your thinking in its tracks, occasions of passion and moments of pathos.
It is by creating this kind of rich cultural mix that people can be lured into the practices and habits of collaboration for peace. Because unless we manage to draw not just a few but masses of people into partnerships that collaborate for peace we are simply going to lurch from crisis to deeper crisis over the coming years and decades.
Part of my day job is to lead a team of nine people who support the parishes of the diocese of Durham. At our meeting last Monday I asked them what they felt the top virtues or habits of collaborative people are.
The first thing to come out was listening – several people said that. If you want to be a collaborator for peace the first thing to do is to work on your listening skills. Honestly, it’s not about talking it’s about listening.
What else did they say? The list is too long to go through point by point but they were clear that investing time in developing a web of relationships was vital, in short make lots of friends – especially make friends of people unlike you. In terms of imagery think of your hands open rather than closed. Work with others towards a shared vision and don’t let the idea of leadership get detached from collaboration – collaborative leaders are effective culture changers and peacemakers.
Collaboration is not the way to achieve a quick fix, and it is not always much help in real crisis – ‘hmm shall we leave the burning building, I’d like to hear what others have to say…’
And there was a word about perfectionism. You have to get beyond d it, Collaborating for peace will always attract idealists but the practice must be positive and practical. That will involve compromise and the subtle arts of small ‘p’ politics.
Collaboration for peace involves patience and determination: masses of patience and buckets of determination. It takes guts to stay with the hope of a peaceful future even when the present is conflicted. When the argument about whatever your version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s carpet is begins to crack off.
It takes deep resolve to keep going when your new friends begin to behave inexplicably and when they think – how dare they! – they you are being awkward. Peacemakers often come across as awkward – because they know that awkward questions need to be heard and that inconvenient voices must not be silenced. Collaborators may fallout about carpets but peacemakers do not let awkward truths get swept under them.
Cooperating for change, collaborating for peace, is going to take every bit of spiritual maturity, every social skill, every scrap of visionary determination and every virtue that is honourable. It’s probably the ultimate and most timely challenge which any human being, any community can face. It’s a wonderful way to spend time. But don’t let anyone suggest it is easy. It’s difficult and sometimes dangerous. But it is delightful – and for people of faith it is a duty.
People of faith need to stand-up and be counted. Not as participants in the faith Olympics, trying to see which faith is best – highest, deepest, truest – but in the peace-making Olympics through which we try to create a world which is peaceful and where all can flourish.
We have seen what Team GB can do. We need to become Team Planet Earth.
Team Planet Earth – my keynote address at Festival of Spirituality and Peace, Edinburgh
August 6, 2012 by Stephen Cherry
I begin with some words of Cole Porter.